Canada's Woods looks forward to a second chance at the Rugby League World Cup

After suffering a serious knee injury ahead of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup in Australia, Petra Woods put away her boots to serve as Canadian team manager.

"She did an incredible job," said Stevi Schnoor, who played for Canada in 2017 and is now part of Canadian head coach Mike Castle's staff. "We're still in awe of how she just took over the reins and made everything so seamless … Honestly she did such an amazing job for the team."

"That being said, now it's a new World Cup and she's had all this time to recover and get her herself right. And she's ready."

Five years on, Woods is back in the Canadian team at the eight-country Women's Rugby League World Cup in England. The Canada Ravens open play Tuesday against Papua New Guinea at Headingley Stadium in Leeds.

"It has been a long time coming for me. I'm very excited," said Woods, whose partner Natalie Tam is also a Ravens player.

Even longer thanks to the pandemic. The tournament was originally scheduled to kick off last October.

The Canada women are ranked sixth in the world while Papua New Guinea is No. 4, although the international rankings mean little given teams like Canada play so rarely.

Woods is slated to start at centre Tuesday.

The 16-country men's World Cup, which started Oct. 15, is ongoing. The Canadian Wolverines, the national men's squad, have yet to qualify for the World Cup.

An eight-team wheelchair competition starts Thursday.

Rugby league is the 13-player version of the game as opposed to the more widely played rugby union, which has 15 players per team.

It's a physical game that combines brute force with no shortage of strategy,

In league, when the ball-carrier is tackled, play stops and the team with the ball launches a new attack. It has possession of the ball for six tackles or plays. On the sixth play, teams usually elect to kick the ball downfield to gain territory. If they don't kick or score on the sixth tackle, the ball turns over to the other team.

A try in rugby league is worth four points, compared to five in rugby union.

Like all of her Canadian teammates, Woods came to the game through rugby union. She was a U-Sports second-team all-Canadian at York University and represented Canada at the under-20 level.

She got into rugby by accident in Grade 9 at Mayfield Secondary School in Caledon, Ont. She was looking to try out for the lacrosse team and ended up in the wrong gym.

Woods, who can play wing, centre and fullback, credits Andy Ireland, a coach at Toronto Saracens, for helping her and other players try rugby league.

Rugby union remains the Ravens players regular game, however, given rugby league's modest presence in Canada.

Woods' 2017 Rugby League World Cup dream ended in the final trials match in B.C., when she was hurt making a tackle against a touring Australian side.

"Just a fluke accident," she recalled. "I've made many tackles in my lifetime and never ever had this experience. But they landed on my knee directly and it caused it to pop out of place."

When she got back to Toronto, doctors told her she had torn her anterior and three medial collateral ligaments as well as the popliteus muscle — which while small is a major stabilizing muscle of the knee. Surgery was required.

"I was hoping that the doctors would have better news than they did," she said. "It was a very emotional time when they told me I wouldn't be going to the World Cup as a player."

Woods, who had her surgery after returning home from the 2017 tournament, said the chance to serve as team manager was both an honour and a relief in that she could stay with the squad.

"To be able to watch them live was what I thought was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but here I am about to do it again — in person and on the field with them," she said.

She helped organize food, travel and hotels for the team.

Woods was on the sidelines as a fledgling Canadian side — in its first trip to the tournament — recorded its first ever international win, downing Papua New Guinea 22-8 in pool play at the six-team competition. That helped Canada to the semifinal where it was thumped 58-6 by eventual champion Australia, who had dispatched the Canadians 88-0 earlier at the tournament.

The 27-year-old Woods, who has a degree in commerce from York, works as an e-commerce customer service supervisor with Sobeys.

"Time off has not been a problem for them. They've been very supportive of my playing," she said.

Woods is doing her bit to grow her game.

In August 2021, she, Tam and fellow Ravens Megan Pakulis and Fedelia Omoghan, along with former U of T player Kaylie Stark, co-founded the Scarborough Rugby Football Club "to bring rugby to a community filled with talent, with loads of athletes."

The women's team has already won promotion to the top tier of Ontario rugby union after an unbeaten inaugural season.

Pakulis is also a member of the current Ravens squad. Omoghan was part of the 2017 team.

Woods is also an assistant coach with the York University women's team.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 29, 2022

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press